In her 2005 MarketingWeb article, head of the language laboratory at the Vega School of Brand Communication, Noluthando Xate wrote: "It's an established fact
that consumers respond better to communication in their mother tongues."
I've read over a 100 such articles, all expounding the importance of mother tongue communication, all citing the mushrooming number of vernacular print publications, all citing the staggering listenership ALS radio commands (which, by the way, is actually in decline), all quoting uTatu Mandela and his famous "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language it goes to his heart"
I can understand the logic behind this sentiment. People do feel a stronger affinity to those who speak their language. Ndiligoduka
, and driving home to the Eastern Cape, we always stop in Queenstown for a drink and bite to eat. It's about four hours away from home - and the first town with a distinctly Xhosa population. I feel a profound sense of belonging and delight when I greet people with "Molo"
and people respond back with "Molo wethu"
. In Jozi, my heart skips a beat when a person greets me in Xhosa.
But this often does not translate well in a commercial context. I do not find telemarketers any less irritating when they speak to me in my own language. I don't find their "great deals", "exclusive packages" and "today only offers" any more persuasive because they are delivered in Xhosa. It depends on what you're selling; which, in the advertising context, means it depends on the idea. Idea trumps language
Hands up how many English or Afrikaans mother tongue speakers loved the KFC 'Skop' commercial. You know, the one in Zulu, where the old man uses the little boy's head as a napkin rest? If you're a white, English-speaking Safrican with your hand up - that's interesting considering Zulu is not your mother tongue.
Next question, did you have a stronger affinity to the English KFC commercials than that vernacular KFC ad? Did you find the vernacular KFC ad less persuasive than the English KFC ads? I know speaking to a 'coupla people' does not qualify this next statement as anything more than my opinion - but all the white folks I spoke to loved the ad, and did not find it any less persuasive than the English communication.
Hands up if you're Zulu (29.4% of the black population according to AMPS) and loved the KFC 'Skop' commercial. Why exactly did you love it? Did you love it 'cause it was in Zulu? Or did you love it because you related to the idea, because the ad was funny and entertaining, because it so cleverly illustrated what you've always known about KFC - that it's finger licking good. My disclaimer above withstanding, not a single Zulu consumer who liked the commercial liked it specifically because it was in Zulu.
For the rest of the non-Zulu speaking Darkie population, basically the 67% non-Zulu black population (the 21.2% Xhosa mother tongue speakers, the 13.7% North Sotho speakers, the 10.4% South Sotho speakers, the 11.3% Tswana speakers, the 4.1% Tsonga speakers, the 2.6% Venda and Swazi Speakers, the 1.2% Ndebele speakers) hands up how many of you loved that commercial?
Let's examine some consequences of an overemphasis on language.
- Fuelling translation
If people respond better to communication in their own language, simply translating an English concept into a vernacular language should have the desired effect. Right? Translating an English concept into Zulu should be as good as building a better mouse trap, basically it should have the Zulus beating a pathway to your door?
The disclaimer often used to negate the possibility of translation is that "ad campaigns often use nuance and wordplay and when this is translated the subtleties of the language tend to get lost in translation". This is simply not true. I cannot think of an ad in recent memory that has suffered a bad translation job. The industry is so hyper aware of this potential pitfall, that over the past two years, translations have been immaculate. Translators are brought in from the word go, and the new catchphrase is "translating concepts not words".
In her March 2010 article on language in the Township Talk section of MarketingWeb, journalist Florence Modikwe gave the KFC 'Skop' commercial props for being in vernac, despite her personal feelings that the concept sucked. A lot of articles I've read follow this line of thinking: praising bad ideas for delivering bad concepts in a certain language. If the idea doesn't matter - if all that matters is an effort to look politically correct by producing ads in vernac, than it's a tacit approval for ads to be translated.
- Boxing in creative
This is the point at which I'm sure some people are going to call me a bloody agent. I can almost feel you baying for my colonised blood. But putting emotion aside - can we accept that sometimes it's possible to get a really good concept aimed at black South Africans in a 'foreign' language? In this current climate - the Metro Fm "What makes you black?" campaign would probably have been translated into Zulu, the new Fatti's & Moni's 'The Glory is Yours' campaign with a black family singing in Italian would have been in Zulu with Italian Subtitles. The Vodacom Summer Loving campaign would have re-recorded the Grease hit in Zulu. It gets ridiculous, but that's what you get when you prioritise language over idea.
Conversely, by asserting that people respond better to communication in their own language, we consign vernacular communication to only those brands that speak to 'blacks'. Currently, when targeting South Africans, the default language is English. Since LSM 8-10 is still largely white, it's unlikely we'll see a vernacular ad for a Blackberry, BMW or the Westcliff hotel, because of course, the majority of that population will respond better to communication in their own language - English or Afrikaans. Remember the Vodacom Rugby commercial where the Khoisan Tribe discover the Joy of Rugby? That commercial is delivered entirely in the Khoisan language despite targeting a male LSM 8-10 rugby audience. In this current climate, the Vodacom Rugby commercial whould probably have been delivered in Afrikaans!
- Boxing in black creatives
Because of this emphasis on language, many black copywriters are hired based on their ability to write in the vernacular and not on their ability to develop creative ideas. They are hired as glorified translators - excluded from certain projects, their non-vernacular ideas dismissed and disregarded, their vernacular executions bought because they are not fully understood.
But, because of the history of this country, we have to accept that a black creative is just as likely to originate an English script as he is to originate a vernacular script. This is part of what makes black creatives... well, creative. There are countless studies on how multi-cultural experiences enhance creativity. Being born in a township, going to visit grandparents in deep rural KZN, studying and living in suburbs is often excellent fodder for creative ideas.
- Zulu domination
And of course if mother tongue communication is so important, we need to reach the largest sector of people in their mother tongue. Since we are unlikely to have 11 TV executions on air, the Venda writer is unlikely to ever see his mother tongue work on television.
So what's my point?
What would I like to see happening around the language issue?
- Let's brief in the right ideas not the right language
Unless we're talking to LSM 1-4 or going on ALS radio, let's ask for relevant ideas and not vernacular executions.
- When we agree that a concept is right, let's not debate language
Let's not bomb a script because it's not in vernac or English or French or Spanish... if it works. Let's do away with the forced, transparent "eish", "hawu", "lekker" and "maklik".
- Let's consider the brand history, personality and tone of voice
There's something disingenuous about L'Oreal Paris speaking in Zulu versus a South African favorite like Koo; especially when there has been no effort to 'South Africanise' the idea.
- Let's get real about the issues
In his 2009 article titled 'Vernacular advertising comes into its own', copywriter at TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris Kamogelo Sesing "wonders" how the Asian and Latin American countries get it right at Cannes every year with work done in their native tongue. I think the answer's pretty simple: Could it be because they've got Asian and Latin American mother tongue copywriters working in their agencies?
If we agree that there is a paucity of good vernacular work in South Africa, if we are worried about English hegemony and losing the diversity that makes us a rainbow nation, maybe we should have agencies that look more like 'rainbow agencies'.
We hide behind mother tongue communication, asking for more vernacular work when what we really want to say is that we want a representative industry. It seems to me we're a bit scared of stating the obvious and justify the need for transformation with spin about the importance of reaching people in their own language. A more representative industry will naturally result in more mother tongue communication, with no forced fake translations and less ads in the 'Yho', 'Sies' and 'Kaloku' genre.
Tackle the issue not the symptom. As discussed above, by creating a furore over mother tongue communication specifically, we've actually created more problems for ourselves.
- Let's stop having 'special' awards for vernacular advertising
It smacks of the disabled Olympics. The Gold award for the SABC New Voice Award for non-English Radio this year went to Draftfcb Johannesburg for the Vodacom campaign 'Bua FM Part 2'. According to Bizcommunity, the campaign was also a winner in the 'main' Radio category, whatever that means. The fact that this year's New Voice winner was also awarded in the 'main' category illustrates the redundancy of the New Voice Award as a whole. I've listened to the Doom commercial that won last year's award. In my personal opinion, it was brilliant. Why was it judged as the best of the vernacular ads? What does this mean? Why was it not judged on the strength of its concept beyond language?